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An Unpleasant Development

On dry and dreary Dixie Highway, just north of downtown West Palm Beach--near Cheerful Street and Beautiful Avenue, not far from where Contentment Avenue once ran--Everee Jimerson Clarke sits in a blue, bunker-like concrete building, guarding a storehouse of memory.

A broad and handsome woman of 75 years -- graceful as only a Juilliard School-trained dancer can be -- she greets a visitor by appointment. She undoes two hefty locks on the gate across the front door and pulls back the heavy iron grillwork. "You didn't always have to keep so locked up around here," she says.

The doorway opens into a large front room about 40 feet long and 20 feet wide in which nearly every square inch of wall is covered by more than 300 photos and posters depicting local black history. A larger back room includes a dance floor and performance space; a small, well-worn library; and a long bank of used, donated computers with shelves of instruction and training manuals piled high overhead.

Since 1996, Clarke has been the driving force behind the Pleasant City Heritage Gallery. It's part shrine, part performing-arts center, and all consciousness-raising effort. Here, the "sons and daughters of the pioneers," as Clarke calls the neighborhood's early settlers, have deposited the artifacts, memorabilia, and oral history of Pleasant City, the 27-block traditional heart of West Palm Beach's black community. "This was once a beautiful place with tree-lined streets and businesses all up and down Spruce Avenue," Clarke says. "It was tight-knit, like family."

Photographs on the gallery's walls recall the Pleasant City of that era. The "Wall of Achievers" features the professionals of the community: black educators, politicians, soldiers, and businessmen from the 1920s and '30s to the present. Other snapshots reflect a history stretching as far back as the late 19th Century that includes the worlds of family, church, home, and school: Ordinary people of every age going about the business of everyday life in a black universe that paralleled South Florida's white one.

But the memories are mocked by the Pleasant City of today, a ravaged landscape of trash-strewn streets, empty lots, and block upon block of dilapidated, crumbling, and boarded-up housing. "New people brought crime and drugs, and the young moved out," Clarke says. "All you had left were old folks afraid to leave their houses at night."

Every so often, one or another representative of the media treks down these mean streets to give Clarke a pat on the back and a glowing write-up. Sometimes, it's a politician: U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, a Democrat, and Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, both sent cards on her last birthday.

What the journalists have never described and what the pols ignore is how angry she is. Clarke spits fire once she gets going. And she sprays it in all directions -- at government, religious leaders, the media, and her own beloved community. "The city officials, they had lots of meetings here over the years," she says. "Said they were going to save the neighborhood, stop crime. They talked about midnight basketball. Come down here on Friday night and tell me how much basketball you see."

This spring, however, for the first time in decades, a good thing seemed about to happen in Pleasant City. The West Palm Beach Housing Authority proposed to tear down three blocks of rot and replace them with a quality, affordable-housing complex called Merry Place. Planners touted it as a spur to neighborhood revival. But there were doubts both in the community and at city hall. On April Fool's Day, the West Palm Beach City Commission approved, then in a political back flip ten days later shot down, the Merry Place plan. Not the right project, they said -- needs more study.

Everee Clarke's disdain for Merry Place speaks volumes about community distrust of local leaders. Her skepticism helps explain why it may be impossible to change this desolate place now or in the near future. "The housing authority ruined this neighborhood in the first place," she says. "Now they're going to build another project?" Hers is a widely held opinion in West Palm Beach's African-American community.

But Merry Place's supporters have a different tale to tell, and the debate over the project involves fundamental questions of public policy and local history. Not for the first time, who speaks for Pleasant City is an open question. The project is caught up in political pressure, and Pleasant City's fate is being decided far from its own street corners. While the bickering and backbiting goes on, the neighborhood stagnates.

Pleasant City's roots are tangled with those of Palm Beach, where the first hotels were built in the 1890s largely by black workers whom Standard Oil tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler imported. "It was black laborers and their families they hired," Clarke says. "There were ads in the Philadelphia papers and across the South. They came down by boat from Jacksonville.

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Steve Ellman

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